Even at 92, Schnabel’s father was terrified of death. “He would grab the rails of his bed and say, ‘I’m slipping, Julie,'” says Schnabel. “I failed him in some way because I couldn’t rob him of that fear.”
But the movie is about a kind of rebirth—it’s an extreme version of a midlife crisis—and making it had a similar effect on Schnabel, who’s 55. “Most artists think about death all the time,” he says. “I did most of my life until I made this movie. It was a kind of self-help device.”
Just then, Schnabel remembers he has to see some workmen on another floor of Palazzo Chupi, so we get into the elevator. We have to squeeze in. There are perhaps ten people onboard: a hefty, dust-covered workman with a drill bit in his hand; a beautiful girl pushing an industrial laundry cart in which are antiques wrapped in moving pads; a squad of Hispanic carpenters. Several languages are being spoken. All eyes are on Schnabel, a circumstance that seems to amplify his intensity. Schnabel is conferring with his trusted foreman, Brian Kelly, whom he’s known since Kelly hung Schnabel’s Castelli show in 1982. The door opens, and a woman hands Schnabel a key. Then the door on the other side opens, and a workman comes with two samples of dark-stained wood and presents them to Schnabel. “We’re trying to reduce the smell.”
“Good idea,” says Schnabel, but decides the new one isn’t good enough. “We can put on some kind of sealant.”
“It’s like directing,” he says as we get off. “When John Ford came onto Dennis Hopper’s set, he said, ‘You’ve just got to keep everyone busy. There shouldn’t be anyone sitting around on a movie set.’”
Schnabel’s three movies, Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and now The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, are all about artists who are in some way oppressed, but then it turns out that their real obstacles, what they have to triumph over in order to fully live, are internal. When one thinks of Schnabel’s career, it’s hard not to imagine that his external obstacle was the critical ire he inspired.
Schnabel’s Mary Boone show in 1979 was the true beginning of the eighties, and in that decade’s theater of excess and envy and Schadenfreude—a long-running show, it still hasn’t closed—he long held center stage. Coming out of the conceptual muddle of the seventies (Is painting dead? And if so, who killed it?), his broken-plate paintings in particular had a shocking freshness—they smashed down a door.
It was when Schnabel himself rushed through the door, too, that all hell broke loose. Schnabel took up a great deal of oxygen in eighties New York, and his arrival coincided with a shift in the fame machinery: winners got more spoils, but every oyster the winners slurped seemed to get written down in a ledger, to be extracted later in blood. With a boastful manner and machismo borrowed from an earlier generation of New York painters, Schnabel did much to stoke these fires. “I’m as close to Picasso as you’re going to get in this fucking life,” he famously said. But where Picasso was a cold father to his creations (and one thinks, in this context, of the Jonathan Richman song: “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole / Not in New York”), Schnabel loved everything he made, and his extravagant pride tended to produce its opposite. He became a locus of career bitterness, a kind of envy black hole. And besides, whatever his talents, he was too sweet, too approachable, too transparently hungry for adulation, to be able to fully inhabit the myths he wanted to claim for himself. His first act seemed to be ending, even before his savagely reviewed Whitney retrospective in 1987. In some ways, his career looks like that of Norman Mailer, with the differences being that Mailer was able to make ambition a more integral part of his art—and people did not exactly rush out to see Maidstone.
Schnabel says he regrets nothing. Still, one detects a slight sheepishness when he’s talking about where his artistic career has gone. He rattles off a long list of his European exhibitions, and mentions that the eminent art critic Rudi Fuchs, a detractor in the early days, wrote the essay for one of his recent exhibition catalogues.
But in a way, his movies have given new life to his art. “I’ve been having a great time painting,” Schnabel says. “It’s like playing the saxophone. You don’t have to tell anyone what you’re thinking. I’m like a crop rotator. One season is carrots, one season it’s potatoes. There must be part of my brain that is restored.”